In the fall of 2008 twenty-five year old Eric Charest-Weinberg, from Montreal, opened a gallery in Wynwood and put his name on the door. Since then there’s been talk around town that he’s becoming Miami’s leading gallery for emerging artists. His handsome space on NW 23rd St. is big and clean and equipped with loft bunks for visiting artists; and that’s a good thing because there are a lot of painters and sculptors out there who want in. The Charest-Weinberg stable now holds a dozen out-of-town artists who are mid-career pros carrying big portfolios and impressive CVs.
One of the most noteworthy of these artists/sculptors (and performance artists) is SunTek Chung from Richmond, Virginia. A graduate of Yale’s M.F.A. program in 2000, he immediately gained notice in group shows from New York and Chicago to Berlin and Tokyo. A lot of the buzz about him can be chalked up to his skill in playing with ideas –precisely and with edgy wit– much like Duchamp, the Big Daddy of conceptualism. But Chung fits into today’s intellectual zeitgeist on his own terms. In SunTek Chung: 10 Years we are introduced to large-scale photographs that are meticulously constructed stage sets in which the artist acts as protagonist –whether angel, samurai, or Southern suburbanite. I’m tempted to say he’s like a Cindy Sherman on steroids but his conceptual approach focuses on modern myths, investigating notions of race and class (be they American or Asian) or busting stereotypes of masculinity. The end result is sometimes hilarious and always provocative.
If Sherman dons elaborate prosthetic devices to become her characters, Chung plays identity games by actually transforming himself physically, by dying his hair white, say, or growing it to become a Kung Fu cricket player. Or by actually gaining 30 pounds to sit in as a surrogate for his down-and-out loser of a good ol' boy in The South, The South, a stunning large C-Print showing a man sitting morosely on the porch of his shack with his bike and his Bud. Rush is Right is written on a homemade sign. Then you look closely at the Confederate flag to see that there’s a crossbreeding of white markings from the flag of South Korea. So do we read these two flags as signifiers for a depressed, dispirited rebellion –one against Communist rule, the other against big government? Is the artist examining integrity and purity of intention in the two cultures? A perfect Chung probe.
In Ninja Love the artist unearths all the Asian kitsch –the laughing Buddhas, the kitties, lanterns and fireworks, to decorate a booth with a fierce ninja assassin (or spy or saboteur?) in attendance, his weapons surrounding him. He is wearing what looks like a Burberry outfit complete with mask, and is holding a Danielle Steele book in his hand. Kitsch is shameless; it knows no boundaries. The animation, Ninja Love, has millions of fans around the globe. Chung reveals his cultural morphing once again, this time for a chuckle and a sigh to show us that even ninjas can love.
An enormous bronze head of the Buddha lies on the gallery floor, titled The Road is Shorter Than You Think. It rests on a seven foot long stretch of sand, signifying Robert Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty, which itself is fashioned from scores of orange conch shells.
If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha, students were told. A necessary step for finding Buddha in oneself and attaining liberation. There is no need to mistakenly objectify or revere figures external to oneself.
Well, Chung has sculpted a violent beheading; his severely severed Buddha head , torn from its Asian roots, exposes both bone and muscle from his neck. Similarly, Buddha’s teachings have been hurled upon America’s shores, landing on the most famous piece of secular land art in this country. Surely this can’t be a good fit.
(Images: The South,The South, 2002, C-print 34.5 x 50 inche; Ninja Love, 2004, C-print 49 3/4 x 40 1/4 inches; The road is shorter than you think, 2009, Cold bronze 4 x 4 x 7 feet 4 x 4 x 7 feet. Courtesy Charest-Weinberg)